Imran2 was not a particularly religious Muslim. Therefore, it was not often that he went to the local mosque. Last Ramadan, he decided to go there for iftar since there used to be free iftar at the mosque daily. It was not that he was fond of free food. He was just a social person and this was the best way to meet his Muslim friends. Although he was not particularly religious at that time, he considered it rude to skip Maghrib prayers and appear at the mosque for the food. So he did his ablutions and joined the others for salat.
After the prayers, Imran was standing around waiting for the food and looking for his friend when the guy who was standing next to him during the prayers said “Assalam o Alaikum.” Imran had no hesitation in replying with “Walaikum Assalam.” To kill time, the two started talking. His name was Amir2 and he was somewhat new to the city. Imran was glad to have someone to chat with to keep his attention away from his starving intestines.
With the food starting to be distributed, Imran spotted some friends and said goodbye to his new acquaintance. “Amir seemed like a good fellow, so when he asked me for my contact info, I readily gave him my phone number,” Imran told me later.
Enjoying the good food and meeting friends Imran forgot about Amir. A week later, Amir called Imran. He wanted to go out with Imran but Imran was busy, so he blew him off. Time passed. Imran went out of town and forgot that he had told Amir that they could meet next month.
When Amir called again, Imran started feeling guilty about not hanging out with Amir. “I was about to tell him to go for coffee at the nearby Starbucks when I got a big jolt,” Imran said. Amir had just told him “I like you.” Imran didn’t want to believe that. He thought may be it was because Amir’s English wasn’t good. “I didn’t want to believe it, so I tried to come up with reasons not to. May be Amir didn’t understand the implications of his statement. May be his knowledge of English was to blame.” But no, Amir had an accent but spoke decent English. While Imran was busy trying to interpret Amir’s words, Amir dropped the bombshell. “I like men,” he said. That was it. Imran’s world was shattered. While he had nothing against gays and could even be said to be in support of gay rights, he had never imagined this. Amir was asking him out on a date.
After what seemed like an eternity of awkward silence on the phone, Imran picked up the courage to say “I don’t.” That was the end of it. Amir hung up and Imran never heard from him again. Imran felt embarrassed and kept this incident to himself.
Then Amina Wadud led a mixed group of men and women at Friday prayers in New York and it became the talk of all MSA’s everywhere. Muslims just couldn’t stop discussing it. During one such discussion, an MSA bigshot started talking of the distraction in prayer for men due to the presence of women. He described the sexual feelings praying shoulder to shoulder with a woman could arouse in men, who are “naturally weak.” There was also talk of having to endure a woman’s behind while praying behind her.
This talk suddenly flipped a switch in Imran. He got red-faced and embarrassingly admitted to the incident with Amir. He wondered what Amir had felt praying right next to him; whether Amir had looked at his backside when he moved to the next row for the Sunnah prayers later. As he thought about it, he felt strange.
That day was the last time Imran prayed in jamaat. When asked why he stopped coming to the mosque, he told me “I just can’t stop wondering whether the guys next to me are thinking sexually about me or if the person praying behind me is staring at me.” Imran wondered “these men are so close to each other during prayer; whenever there is an accidental touch during prayers, I wonder if it was intentional and sexual.” The only way Imran can pray now is in solitude.
1 A weblog named “tomato”? What will we have next: a blog named “aloo” (potato)?
2 Names have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty.